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Shelf Life    by Suzanne Strempek Shea order for
Shelf Life
by Suzanne Strempek Shea
Order:  USA  Can
Beacon, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

My familiarity with the writings of Suzanne Strempek Shea began in 1996 while perusing shelves in a Manhattan bookstore. Hoopi, Shoopi, Donna danced off the shelf into my avid reader hands. The first two words are the same as a Polka dance/song title. Reading in her bio that the author is Polish and lives in Massachusetts, shoot, slam, and dunk, I had to own that book! After that first find, I sought all the author's books ... Lily of the Valley, Around Again, Songs From A Lead-Lined Room: Notes--High and Low--From My Journey Through Breast Cancer and Radiation, and Selling the Lite of Heaven. I find her writing irresistible, capturing the essence of life with creativity and humor, love and passion.

What better for a book reviewer to read than Shelf Life, about a bookstore venture. During recovery from cancer, the author worked part-time in Edwards Books, Springfield, Massachusetts ( It's a family enterprise offering books from Alternatives to this or that to Zentrepreneur, and Shea introduces the store's staff, their lives and duties. She reminisces about the history of notable bookstores such as Women and Children First in Chicago, Illinois, Brookline Booksmith in Massachusetts, Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington, Kentucky, and Kenny's Bookshop in Galway, Ireland, telling us that the demeanor of staff brightens each store. Shea recounts adventures with clients -- those who locate a book on their own, those who need assistance, and others who ask for a book with such vague description as ... the author was on Good Morning America! And then there was the one looking for a tome 'by the author Shurshill -- you know C-H-U-R-C-H-I-L-L. Like the president?'

Shea shares memories of learning to read with Babci, days as a feature writer, bookstores visited, and a trip to Krakow, Poland on scholarship in the summer of 1976 to study languages at the famous Jagiellonian University. I never thought of 'ISBN' as 'I Sell Books Now' until I read this memoir. But seriously, this author knows a heap, and she writes about it with humor. Do you know that there is a 'dump' in bookstores? Not the garbage disposal; it's a name for the cardboard-constructed stands displaying specific book(s). Of her bookstore experience Shea says, 'I have a space of twelve months between me and that lost, lethargic, lumpy-clam state and where I am now is like looking back from the stern of a boat and seeing the coastline of a country in which you had a really rotten vacation getting smaller by each turn of the propeller ... the big reason I feel so much more stable is due to how I spent that twelve months.'

Shelf Life is an absorbing, amusing memoir about healing physically, in the context of books and the survival of independent bookstores. Read it if you cherish the love of reading, meeting an author, the smell inside a library ... walking in a shopping mall or on a city/town merchants' street and being drawn into bookstores. In Shea's words, 'Get thee to a bookstore!'

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